A little over 10 years ago, I was lying in a hospital bed, impatiently waiting for the doctor to tell me what was going on with my stomach and why I have been horribly sick for the last three months.
During this time, I had not been in the Air Force very long , I was newly married, and desired having a baby.
Prior to the beginning of all the continuous excruciating stomach pain, it seemed as though things were not quite going my way. I was told at the age of 20 that I was not able to have any children, my new spouse was about to deploy leaving me alone for the very first time ever, and I was being assigned to a section at work that I was less than thrilled about.
It seemed as though all the bad luck had piled up against me, and I was not taking it well. That is when all the stomach pain started. It almost seemed as though it came out of nowhere. One day I was just a little uncomfortable. Then it just seemed to get worse and worse to the point of me remaining in the fetal position, and my then spouse having to carry me into the doctor’s office.
Throughout those few months I saw numerous specialists and had many tests done to determine the possible health issues I might be experiencing. To my amazement, after all the tests were completed, absolutely nothing was found.
Me on the other hand, was convinced that I was dying.
One of the doctors suggested that I speak to a psychologist. “Maybe it was just mental?” I doubt it.
As I sat across from a psychologist the week following, I was nervous and worried about what he would think of me, and if maybe I was actually “crazy”. I began the process very apprehensively, but slowly felt more comfortable and opened up to share with him thoughts, feelings and experiences that I’ve honestly never told anyone else before. He suggested that I had Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) Is characterized by the persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things. Individuals with GAD may be overly concerned about money, health, family, work, and other issues. They find it difficult to control their worry, even if there is no apparent reason for concern. GAD Is diagnosed when an individual finds it difficult to control worry on more days than not, for at least six months. This disorder can come on gradually and can begin across the life cycle. When the anxiety level is mild or moderate, individuals with GAD can it function socially and have full and meaningful lives. However, in moments of increased or severe levels of GAD it can be difficult to carry out even the simplest daily task.
I was not entirely surprised at this diagnosis. Growing up I always felt a little “on edge” and “extremely worried” but never really knew how to put a label on it, or even describe it. I grew up in a household where mental health was not typically discussed. Although I felt the way that I did, I never really understood why, I just figured it was normal. This led me to not having proper coping skills. So, once the anxiety came at a rate and amount that I no longer could handle, my body got angry! It literally had to retaliate to get my attention.
This is when I discovered that our mental health greatly impacts our physical health. When it comes to chronic anxiety most people recognize their behavioral changes, such as irritability, lack of sleep, in excessive worry. However, anxiety can have a serious consequence on our physical health.
All systems of our body are impacted by long-term anxiety, including the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, digestive system, immune system and respiratory system.
Within the central nervous system, anxiety causes the brain to release stress hormones on a regular basis. This then increases the symptoms related to the frequency of headaches, dizziness, depression and even weight gain, due to the flooding of hormones and chemicals that are designed by the brain to help us respond to a threat.
Anxiety may also cause rapid heart rate, palpitations, and chest pain. Individuals may experience increased high blood pressure and are at a higher risk for heart disease. Research suggests that anxiety is also associated with increased risk of heart failure and stroke.
The effects on the excretory and digestive systems due to long term and prolonged anxiety can lead to stomach aches, nausea, diarrhea and other digestive issues. A common connection between anxiety disorders and the digestive system is the development of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Anxiety triggers the immune system’s “flight-or-fight” response and releases a flood of chemicals, like the adrenaline hormone, into your system. Although in the short term this is good for your brain and for the rest of your body as it prepares to respond appropriately to an intense situation, if the body does not return back to normal functioning, this can weaken the immune system leaving it vulnerable to viral infections and frequent illnesses.
Additional physical symptoms of anxiety include insomnia or other sleeping issues such as waking up frequently, chronic weakness or fatigue, rapid breathing or shortness of breath, trembling or shaking, and my personal favorite muscle tension or pain.
Treatment for anxiety and the physical symptoms that come along with it are essential to preventing long term health issues. Therapy and medication are two of the main treatments for anxiety, but the physical symptoms associated should also be addressed. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common and effective therapy options for anxiety. CBT is a form of talk therapy to help individuals become aware of their inaccurate or negative thinking, in order to view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way.
What are some the positive and preemptive coping skills that can be developed to avoid the body’s need to retaliate? Glad you asked.
- Be physically active. Exercise reduces stress and improves physical health. Establishing a regular exercise routine, decreases levels of tension, elevates and stabilizes mood, improved sleep and improves self-esteem.
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine. As wonderful as these things might b , they can make anxiety worse. I do not personally suggest cutting all of these things out of your diet (because is functioning without coffee is a thing?) but it is important to be mindful of the impact it might have on your anxiety levels when consumed. Of course, just like anything else, adjust accordingly.
- Try relaxation techniques. Guided imagery and deep breathing are two practices that allow your body to relax . I have personally found practicing meditation and yoga to be a useful mind-body practice that combines physical poses, controlled breathing, and relaxation to reduce stress and anxiety. It has also benefited my awareness of my body and I recover much quicker from anxiety related symptoms.
- Prioritize sleep. Sleep issues are often associated with anxiety. Try to get as much sleep as you can, but not too much. It is recommended to get 6-8 hours of sleep every night. Feeling rested can help you cope with your anxiety and the symptoms related to it, resulting in a noticeable reduction.
Our body has an interesting way of getting our attention. It starts out with a slight whisper through small signs and symptoms, but when you ignore those whispers it begins to scream. Next time your body is attempting to get your attention, ask yourself, what is my body needing for me? What am I not addressing? What resources do I need to seek out?
Trust your body, is trying to tell you something.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) (2020). In Anxiety and depression association of America. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad
Raypole, C. (2019). Physical symptoms of anxiety: How does it feel? . In Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/physical-symptoms-of-anxiety